This week the Rainbow PUSH Coalition hosted a two-day symposium promoting greater African-American participation in the high-tech space. Speakers include Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield who recently called on major IT firms to include more African-Americans in their government relations offices in Washington, D.C. Butterfield and the CBC have made similar calls to the actual operations-side of the tech industry where several leading companies were recently pressured to reveal that fewer than 3 percent of their tech professionals were black.
All these efforts to increase inclusion in the tech industry, however, share one glaring omission: the discriminatory effects of the H-1B foreign guestworker program. Fortunately, three H-1B reform bills have been introduced recently, all of which would go far in increasing black representation in the industry.
African-Americans make up 9 percent of all computer science degree-holders. Their under-representation is likely connected to the 700,000 mostly Indian H-1B guestworkers currently working in the country (along with their spouses who Obama earlier this year allowed to work). Big Tech loves these workers because they’re younger and cheaper. As Robert Reich, who oversaw the H-1B program when he was Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, recently admitted, BigTech wants these workers “because they don’t want to pay more than they’re paying now.” To his credit, Rainbow PUSH Coalition president Jesse Jackson has addressed this connection before.
Qualified African-Americans are affected when IT employers hire foreign professionals instead of them. This can take the form of ads blatantly asking for H-1B-holders only (like this ad from a federal contractor) or from more subtle, segregated hiring. Importantly, however, companies who give preference to foreign H-1B workers exclude all qualified Americans. As tech professional advocacy group Bright Future Jobs says, every time it pushes to expand the H-1B program, the tech industry “falsely accuses” all Americans of being under-skilled, including “women, students, minorities and older workers” in order to “distract public attention from their discriminatory recruiting and hiring practices.”
Across-the-board, anti-American bias has finally forced alienated tech professionals to file national origin-discrimination claims based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a sight unseen until now. Class action lawsuits against both Tata Consulting Services and Infosys, major firms in the area of H-1B outsourcing, are currently working their way through federal courts. Tata and Infosys, the biggest outsourcers, sponsor between five and ten thousand H-1B applicants per year farming them out to companies like Apple, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft. As my colleague, John Miano, notes in a new book about the issue, when Apple in 2013 hired 509 contractors from Infosys, only ten were actually American; the remaining 499, or 98 percent, were recent arrivals from South Asian countries. This level of hiring disparities, albeit based on race, formed the earl “underutilization” or “disparate impact” discrimination claims by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In both the Tata and Infosys suits the plaintiff-groups allege they were passed up for receiving contract assignments with major IT clients, were excluded and ridiculed for not speaking Hindi (the majority of employees were Indian), and were subjected to bigoted comments in general. Last month, a group of tech workers filed a group-complaint with the EEOC asserting similar discriminatory claims against the Disney Corporation when it replaced 250 of its Orlando tech staff. The EEOC complaint alleges national origin and age-bias as well as a hostile work environment on account of Disney’s policy of forcing employees to train their replacements before their dismissal as a condition of keeping their severance packages.
Contrary to popular belief, firms utilizing the H-1B program are not required to show they’ve actually attempted to hire an American first. In heavily black Washington, D.C., for instance, openings for 3,414 white collar jobs were filed with the H-1B program in FY2015. None of these jobs need to be offered to a qualified American first. One recent survey of nearly 100 US companies engaged in H-1B hiring found nearly 20 percent admitting they wouldn’t hire an American professional even if one was available. This kind of disparate treatment against Americans naturally excludes African-Americans and shouldn’t get a pass from Rep. Butterfield or Jackson.
Luckily, three major H-1B reform bills have been introduced over the last several weeks, each of which deserves their support. Senators Cruz and Nelson have recently introduced separate bills along Senators Grassley and Durbin last month. The latter would require all job openings to be first posted on a federal website and would also bar employers from the program if they post discriminatory job ads (this isn’t a requirement currently). These provisions would go far in aligning the H-1B program with the Civil Rights Act. The more senior CBC members in particular, those who remember discriminatory want ads, should fully endorse these reforms. Bright Future Jobs estimates that if the Grassley-Durbin bill passed tomorrow, there would be over 200,000 white-collar jobs that qualified US workers could apply for. If Butterfield and the CBC truly want to increase their constituents’ representation within BigTech they should sign on to H-1B reform.